Johns Hopkins University has selected a wounded soldier as a patient for the country's first penis transplant, Reuters reported Thursday. The university announced its intention, in December, to perform the first surgery of this kind in the United States, and surgeons there have been practicing the 12-hour procedure on cadavers to prepare for their patients.
The surgery could take place within the next few weeks, pending the selection of a donor of the right age and skin color and permission of their next of kin. The potential stigma surrounding penis donation is one of the biggest problem for Johns Hopkins to overcome. In fact, the medical team has expressed concern that the very existence of penis transplants in the United States may discourage some individuals from donating any of their organs. For now, penile donation is strictly opt-in.
The first successful penis transplant was performed last year in South Africa, and has resulted in a child for the recipient. In South Africa, the procedure was developed to help men injured during ritual circumcisions, which are common in the country's Xhosa tribe.
In the United States, the target demographic for the surgery will be wounded veterans. The Defense Department's Trauma Registry reports that 1,367 military servicemen sustained injuries to the genitals between 2001 and 2013 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The anonymous first patient is a soldier who lost most of his penis in an explosion overseas. More than 60 other potential patients — all of them wounded servicemen — are waiting in the wings to follow.
"These are very important in terms of giving back a sense of self," Carisa Cooney, clinical research manager of the Johns Hopkins Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, told The Washington Post in December.
The surgery is meant to restore sexual function as well as heal the psychological trauma of severe genital injury. But it comes with risk: In addition to the grueling surgery and a lifetime of medication to keep the immune system from rejecting the new organ, patients must prepare for the possibility that their transplant will make their emotional anguish worse. Before South Africa's successful surgery, the world's first transplant in China ended in the patient asking for the new penis to be removed. The presence of the unfamiliar, donated organ was too disturbing.
It's possible that the surgery, once developed, could help people with congenital deficiencies or even be adapted for transgender people seeking sex reassignment. For now, Johns Hopkins will perfect the surgery solely on veterans injured in the line of duty — men who are ineligible for less drastic surgical fixes, eager to participate and who understand the risks.
Correction: A previous version of this post cited injury statistics from 2011-2013, when in fact the injuries were recorded between 2001 and 2013. We apologize for the error.